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A campaign for the heart and soul of our democracy

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With President Trump’s official announcement of his 2020 campaign scheduled for June 18 and dozens of Democratic candidates running for their party’s nomination, the next 18 months promise a level of political campaigning that will exhaust even the most engaged voters. But another campaign cycle that simply engages the normal political fault lines of left versus right cannot address the moral and economic crisis of the present moment. 

Despite record stock market and unemployment numbers, 140 million Americans are poor or low income—just one $400 emergency away from not being able to pay their bills each month. We’ve seen a 60 percent increase in people living in poverty over the last 50 years, while the share of income lining the pockets of the top 1 percent has nearly doubled and policies that would help the poor and insure living wage as a minimum wage have been cut. Sixty-two million Americans work every day for less than $15 an hour while there’s not a single county in the country where you can rent a two bedroom apartment while working full time at minimum wage. Despite the expansion of coverage under the Affordable Care Act, 37 million people still have no access to health insurance in the wealthiest country in the history of the world.

In a country whose constitution requires establishment of justice and promotion of the general welfare, we cannot refuse to talk specifically about how policies and budget decisions impact poor and low wealth people. These issues of systemic poverty, which have been overlooked by both parties in U.S. politics, are inextricably tied to systemic racism, ecological devastation, a militarism that has gutted imagination for domestic spending and a religious nationalism that gives cover for politicians while saying nothing about religion’s concern for the poor and the common good.

While the Trump administration’s attacks on health care, public housing and anti-poverty programs are hurting poor people, inequality grew for decades before Donald Trump took office. Since the federal government retreated from the War on Poverty in the 1970s, a narrative that demonized and blames poor people for their struggles has infected our public life. During the 2016 presidential primaries and campaign, there were 26 televised debates, but not a single hour was devoted to how candidates would address America’s poverty. Republicans have talked about the economy while Democrats talked about lifting up the middle class. But little intention has been devoted to the issues that affect the 140 million poor and low wealth citizens. These are not “far-left” issues, but fundamental moral and constitutional issues. For too long, political discourse has refused to address them by relegating them to the margins of public life.

In the spring of 2018, thousands of those overlooked and neglected declared loudly that they would be silent no more, partnering with religious leaders and hundreds of advocates across the nation to launch the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. Following a historic wave of nonviolent civil disobedience, a 93-city bus tour and a year of deep organizing in these states, we’ll convene this week for the first-ever Poor People’s Moral Action Congress.

Over three days, hundreds of grassroots leaders from across the nation will host 10 presidential candidates to hear directly from those who have been left out of our debates and discussion for too long. We will present a national moral budget, outlining a plan to pay for real, systemic change as well a challenge to the lie of scarcity. And poor people who haven’t seen a place for them in American public life will testify before the House Budget Committee, in a hearing to share their stories and address what the federal government can and must do now to address the real issues affecting everyday Americans. 

We are building coalitions among poor people who are too often pitted against one another by the divide-and-conquer tactics of the Southern Strategy. In the so-called “red-states” of the South and Midwest, we are organizing people into a movement who will vote, take action and challenge the assumptions of candidates from both parties. We are organizing across race and other lines that too often divide us and lifting up and deepening the leadership of those most affected by systemic racism, poverty, the war economy and ecological devastation.

Over the past 50 years, Democrats have neglected the South, leaving 170 Electoral College votes on the table, without a fight. But the change we need to address the moral crisis of this nation depends on a new Southern Strategy that taps into this region’s enormous political potential. Black re-migration and Latino and Asian immigration have changed the demographics of the South. While people of color made up 34.2 percent of the region in 2000, that number jumped to 40 percent by 2010. A coalition of black, brown, and white voters – focused on a vision for a more just economy that starts with tackling systemic racism- can revolutionize this region, and thereby this country. 

In Tchula, Miss.—the poorest town in the poorest state in the union—for example, floodwaters have risen with climate change and destroyed the homes of people who were already living in poverty. Residents of Tchula have joined the campaign and recognized that their future depends on connecting with poor white people in Appalachia, Latinx immigrants in farming communities, and public teachers in all of these communities who’ve seen extremist legislatures cut state education budgets. In state after state, coalitions are emerging that will transform the political landscape in 2020 and beyond by demanding both parties address the real issues impacting poor people.

For anyone who watches the daily headlines about the latest controversy in Washington, D.C., these are troubling times in America. But on the ground in communities across the nation, we see a new electorate rising. The revival of democracy that we so sorely need is being led by the people our government has ignored for the past 40 years.

The Rev. William J. Barber and the Rev. Liz Theoharis are co-chairs of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival.

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